By ROGER MOORE
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Samuel L. Jackson likes to dress sharp, likes to look tough, and loves to preach. He may have found his perfect role in "Coach Carter," the true story of a sharp-dressing, uncompromising high school basketball coach who earned notoriety for standing up for academics in sports-obsessed America.
It's more "Lean on Me" than "Friday Night Lights," or rather it should be. There's an awful lot of formula on-the-court action before the movie gets to its point -- the sermon.
But where "Friday Night Lights" laid out the symptoms of a culture with its values out of whack, "Coach Carter" offers a cure. Tough love. No grades, no play. They should've offered this guy the Notre Dame job.
The Ken Carter of the film's title is a former star player for the Richmond High School Oilers. This working-poor California town and school have pretty much hit bottom when Carter, now a sporting goods store-owner, agrees to take the $1,500-a-year boy's basketball coaching job.
By the book
Sports movie cliche No. 1: The Oilers are an undisciplined, trash-talking bunch of thugs. They've got a smart-mouthed point guard named Worm (Antwon Tanner), a gang-banger shooting guard (Rick Gonzalez), a street-tough forward (Channing Tatum), a center who can't read (Terrell Byrd) and that one player who is sure he's gotten his girlfriend pregnant (Rob Brown).
They're losing at life, and that has spread to the court. They can't win.
Carter will transform them, overnight, into winners. How? Cliche No. 2: discipline, respect and endless "suicide drills."
He will call them "sir."
"Sir is a term of respect. You will have my respect until you abuse it."
It always looks so easy in the movies. Run more wind sprints and you're unbeatable. So why isn't every coach out-suicide-drilling the opposition?
Carter makes his players sign contracts. They will play, but only if they maintain a grade point average that will get them into college. They will sit in the front row of every class they take. They will wear jackets and ties on game days.
The players revolt. Some quit. The parents toss a collective fit. The principal (Denise Dowse) really has more important things to worry about.
Then, the coach's son quits private school and joins up, the lads start winning and all seems swell until that long-delayed third act arrives, and Carter has to play his academic trump card.
Director Thomas Carter spends too much time setting up the winning program, showing us very good basketball footage (these guys run more "back doors" than you will see in an entire March Madness). But somebody needed to clue him in on what the movie was really about.
More to do
The "I'm pregnant" soap opera between Kenyon (Brown) and Kyra (Ashanti) is worth exploring. The gang-banger trying to play his way out of trouble (Gonzalez) is a trite invention, but still a good object lesson. The father-coach/son-player dynamic is wasted screen time (Robert Ri'chard goody two-shoes his way through his scenes with Jackson).
But Jackson plays the coach with wit and authority. His imposing presence ensures that he won't have to take much guff, even from the toughest punk on the team.
There's nothing new here, from the story's uplifting arc to its "This is your time" speeches in the games. But if Coach Carter is giving a sermon, at least it is one worth hearing. Life, and how prepared you are to live it, is more important than learning the full-court press.